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News and Features: Online exclusives

Murray now tangled in Probation web

Senate president is among the most prominent legislators identified in racketeering indictment

BY: Jack Sullivan

Senate President Therese Murray, whose name had been mentioned but who has been largely on the periphery of the Probation Department scandal, is now fully enmeshed after a federal indictment made direct reference to her involvement in four underqualified but politically connected people getting probation jobs.

The federal indictment issued on Friday morning charges three former probation officials – the former commissioner, John J. O’Brien, his first deputy, Elizabeth Tavares, and another deputy, William H. Burke III – with racketeering and mail fraud in trading jobs for legislative support for increased budgets. They were arraigned this afternoon in US District Court in Worcester and all three face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

O’Brien is already under indictment in the scandal in state court along with Scott Campbell, who worked as an aide to former state treasurer Tim Cahill.

US Attorney Carmen Ortiz, who announced the federal indictments, said it is “just one step in an ongoing investigation,” but declined to say if more indictments would follow or if any state lawmakers would be charged.

The indictments charge that O’Brien and his codefendants ran a “criminal enterprise” at the Probation Department that resulted in a “sham” process for hiring those favored by legislators while qualified applicants were routinely rejected.

“It was a part of the conspiracy that, in order to conceal the true nature of the enterprise's hiring decisions, the defendants created a sham hiring system,” the indictment says. “This sham system was used by the defendants and other members of the conspiracy to conceal the fact that the hiring decisions were pre-determined and not based upon merit, but based upon the nature and extent of the sponsorship.”

The probation scheme has been the subject of public outcry since the Boston Globe and CommonWealth began detailing the connections between underqualified candidates getting positions solely because of who they know. The stories detailed a list kept by O’Brien and his aides showing which legislator made calls or wrote letters on a candidate’s behalf. The Globe stories detailed political contributions and ties of more than 250 probation employees.

The Supreme Judicial Court tasked attorney Paul Ware with investigating the scandal, and the result was a 377-page report, issued in November 2010, that has been the basis for both the state and federal indictments. A spokeswoman for the court said the SJC justices would have no comment on the federal indictments.

All of those who allegedly got jobs through political connections were identified in the federal indictments by initials only but CommonWealth was able to confirm their names through Trial Court union seniority lists, payroll records, and the Ware Report.

The indictment also did not mention names of any lawmakers but referred to several by the positions they held and time of the hiring, making them easily identifiable. Former House speaker Sal DiMasi is prominently mentioned in the report by his post and current Speaker Robert DeLeo is identified as the then-chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee who intervened on behalf of his godson, Brian Mirasolo, who was the son of his chief of staff at the time. DiMasi, who is serving an eight-year prison sentence in connection with a separate corruption case, was returned to Massachusetts earlier this month to testify before the grand jury.

Murray, who took over as Senate president in mid-2007, is referred to in four instances in the indictment, with references to supporting candidates for probation jobs. The indictment says Murray had her hand in the hiring of Patrick Lawton, a politically connected member of a prominent South Shore family whose father and grandfather were judges, as a probation officer in Plymouth Family and Probate Court; the hiring and later promotion of Antonio Mataragas, a probation officer in Peabody District Court who made campaign donations to Sen. Fred Berry; and two probation officers in Plymouth District Court, including Melissa Melia, whom the indictment describes as “an acquaintance” of Barnstable District Attorney Michael O’Keefe.

Murray issued a statement denying any illegal or inappropriate actions, saying she gets numerous requests from constituents for references that she forwards as a part of her job as a senator.

“But we have no control over any hiring process and the indictment does not suggest that I was aware of any fraudulent conduct within the probation department,” Murray said. “Indeed, when I did learn about what was going on in probation, we led a forceful and thorough overhaul of the department’s hiring practices last year to insure the highest degree of transparency possible.”

Former US attorney Michael Sullivan said he was not surprised by the references to lawmakers he was able to identify in reading the indictments. When it was pointed out that Murray escaped much of the scrutiny in the Ware Report that made damning references to other legislators, including DiMasi, Sens. Marc Pacheco and Mark Montigny and state Rep. Thomas Petrolati, Sullivan said federal prosecutors had the time and power to dig much deeper.

“Give credit to Paul Ware and his team for what they did but keep in mind that was a starting point not an ending point,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan, like Ortiz, said job recommendations and even patronage are not crimes by themselves. But he also said the lack of names in the indictments is not an indication that any legislators skirted potential charges.

“I think the government is being extremely cautious with regards to identifying somebody by name, recognizing that being indicted obviously has substantial collateral consequences,” he said. “I wouldn’t read any more into it than what the indictment says at this time, but it clearly indicated that members of the legislative body participated in the enterprise.”

For more on Commonwealth’s coverage of the probation scandal, click here .

Homepage photo by masshighered and published under a Creative Commons license.

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